In 2014, a photo of a crying black boy hugging a white police officer was offered as a salve for a festering national wound. Freelance photographer Johnny Nguyen snapped a photo of then 12-year-old Devonte Hart sobbing while hugging Portland police Sgt. Bret Barnum. The event that brought them together was a demonstration in Portland, OR, protesting the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown. Brown was only six years older than Hart at the time. Devonte attended the protest with his parents Jennifer and Sarah Hart, and was holding a sign offering “Free Hugs” when Nguyen spotted him in the crowd. After taking the heart wrenching shot, he sold it to The Oregonian who then published it, beginning its journey to virality.
The photo soon caught the attention of an audience desperate for hope that the anti-black racist violence long ravaging the U.S. could be stamped out with a mutual agreement to put the divisions behind us all. If a black child could extend love to a white police officer while an epidemic of state violence against black people grips the country, the thinking went, then maybe adults could follow his example. “It’s the picture we needed to see after the past week's turmoil,” wrote CNN. “The photograph poignantly captured the hope that that gap could still be bridged,” wrote CBS News. The Portland Police bureau considered hanging the photo in their precincts. It was dubbed “the hug shared around the world.”
A chorus of international voices lionized the photo, launching Devonte from child to symbol of hope. But behind the shares and requisite claims that the photo was a hoax, some called into question what it was we were really seeing. “That hug photo is complex on many levels. You have a black boy out clearly experiencing mental trauma,” wrote one Twitter user that December. “They place that scripted ass shot of the lil boy hugging the cop, that poor baby scared for his life to try and soften us,” wrote another. "That child is in trauma," photographer Intisar Abioto told The Oregonian at the time. In my own group of friends of color in Portland, where I lived at the time, folks took advantage of our safe spaces to talk about how much the photo bothered them. “I just see fear in his face,” one friend told me.
After the photo went viral, Nguyen recounted meeting Devonte for an interview with The Oregonian:
“I asked him his name. I asked, ‘Do you know what’s going on?’ He said, ‘A protest.’ I asked him if he knew why it’s going on. He said ‘Yes.’ I asked him if he thought it was good or bad. He didn't say anything. He kept crying, so I gave him a hug. His mom was standing behind him and said, ‘Devonte just has a really big heart.’ At that point, I could tell this kid was special. He does have a huge heart. But I took a step back and walked down the sidewalk about 10 feet to give him a little space.”
We now know that Devonte’s parents who were standing behind him had been suspected of abusing him and his five siblings for some time. And we now know that the picture of harmony that their family photos project — photos that can be read with the same kind of racial unity narrative that was imposed on Devonte’s photo with the police officer — obscured a much more heartbreaking reality of disfunction and abuse. But the only reason we know all this is because Devonte and his two other siblings are feared dead in the seemingly intentional crash perpetrated by their parents. Markis, Jeremiah, and Abigail Hart were killed when their parents drove their car off a cliff in Northern California on March 26. Devonte, Hannah, and Sierra Hart are missing and feared dead. Now, it’s hard to look at photos of their smiling, interracial family and see tragedy and trauma inseparable from the toxic racial harmony fantasy that Devonte was used to promote
As glimpses of the disturbing aspects of Devonte’s home life are now being revealed to the world, the full reality of his and his siblings’ struggles will likely never be known. Instead we only have echoes of the cries they left behind: neighbors who suspected something was off, questions of abuse that went unanswered, and of course, that now-haunting photo that first introduced us to Devonte.
Devonte’s story was used to further a national pipe dream of healing without accountability.
Though photos can tell a thousand words, as the saying goes, it’s all too easy, especially in the internet age for, any one to lose their crucial context. Contextless images are the basis of the memes — both serious and not — we now use to convey unrelated meaning. The photo of Devonte hugging the officer in tears now risks continuing on as a symbol for a neat racial reconciliation that will never come through something as easy as a hug. Devonte’s story was used to further a national pipe dream of healing without accountability. When that photo pops up occasionally online in the years going forward, the focus could very well remain on that “touching” hug rather than on the child on whom all the “hope” in the photo rests.
There’s been much scattered chatter in recent years over the visibility — or lack thereof — of black youth. The hypervisibility of white Parkland shooting survivors stirred up questions of why black youth organizing in Ferguson never received the same amount of glowing publicity or support. A recent trailer for a new Rachel Dolezal documentary elicited sympathy and concern on social media for her son, visibly suffering under the weight of public scrutiny. Their family photos too have been used as evidence that Dolezal, a white woman who claims she is a “transracial” black woman, is not racist. In each case, black youth suffer because of oversight, because of an ongoing national failing to see black youth on their own terms. The humanity of a black child is too often sacrificed in service of the uncritical interpretive gaze of the indifferent world around them, too often brushed aside to illustrate a story they were never called on to tell.
The tragic deaths and disappearances of Markis, Jeremiah, Abigail, Devonte, Hannah, and Sierra Hart have opened up a hole in many people’s hearts. News of a death so senseless would have caught national attention no matter what the identity was of the family involved. But that this happened to a child who became a national symbol of hope for a post-racial opens up questions of how this could have happened in such plain sight — how no one saw this coming, how we read that family so wrong. Looking now at the photo of Devonte at that Ferguson march in 2014, the question that keeps ringing in my mind: When will we as a country start to really see our black youth?